Last year, at the age of 68, after more than 40 years in medicine, my father retired. His plan was to move full-time with my mother to a rural area of New York State where they’d kept a weekend home for years. That was the entirety of the plan: no commitments, no set travel plans, no continuing-ed classes. Given my father’s history, it was an utterly unrecognizable landscape.
My father started work unofficially at 14, in his father’s small factory that produced sweeping compound, then officially at 16 when he was old enough to obtain working papers. He held jobs at an insurance company, at a summer camp, at the post office as soon as he was of age to take the civil service test: an hour’s work for an hour’s pay. He was the first in his family to attend college, and when he became interested in science, it was with a pragmatic bent: he chose surgery in part because it allowed him to work with his hands to fix a problem, with the satisfaction of real-time results. By the time I was a small child, he’d finished two years’ service as an Air Force surgeon, and was at the start of what would be a long career in a community hospital outside New York City.
For more than three decades, my father’s pager was part of the soundscape of our family’s life, its plangent voice summoning him out of meetings, movies, meals. At night the hospital used the telephone instead—the ring jarring us all momentarily from sleep, followed by a swift creak from the bed in my parents’ room; the sound of the receiver leaving its cradle; my father’s voice, low and scrubbed of sleep, greeting the emergency room dispatcher. Then the rumble of the garage door: a heavy, wooden affair that had to be hauled up to shoulder level, then hoisted overhead—the sound of my father starting a night’s work.
As a general surgeon, part of a small and busy surgical practice, he was on call one out of every two or three nights and weekends for decades, the pager clipped to his belt like an extension of himself. Only once in all those years did it go missing, several hours into an apple-picking excursion with friends. From the farmhouse we called the answering service and asked them to beep him continuously. I remember searching the orchard with him, re-tracing our afternoon’s progress through the rows, eventually tracking the sound to one tree that was surrounded by lush poison ivy. When pushing aside the leaves with a stick yielded nothing, my father got down on hands and knees in the stuff, searching through it just long enough to end up with a rip-roaring case of poison ivy (despite the surgical-level scrubbing he did upon leaving the orchard) and just long enough to understand that the beeping was coming from above him. We found the pager dangling from the low branch where it had snagged while he was picking apples. Only now, as an adult, does it occur to me that my father could have made a different choice, that he could have walked away from both beeper and poison ivy unscathed. But it never occurred to him. The pager had to be retrieved. It was the surgical practice’s property. Money didn’t grow on trees.
When my father reached the age of 52, he began a gradual transition from surgery to hospital administration; as he put it, he’d rather stop operating a year before he should have than one day after he should have. By 60 he’d completed the shift to being a full-time hospital administrator, involved with both internal hospital matters and the medical side of statewide disaster-planning. Now the pager he wore belonged to the hospital—and while its call wasn’t as relentless, it turned out that hospital administrators have middle-of-the-night emergencies too.
And then, despite the seemingly universal expectation that my father would continue working as long as practicable, he announced his plan to retire.
Knowing the central role that work had played in his life, I asked whether he was sure about this idea of quitting cold turkey. I wasn’t the only one to wonder; the hospital didn’t want him to leave. He could have stayed on full- or part-time, and eased the transition. But he was unequivocal. He’d been working since he was 14. He was finished.
Within weeks of his official retirement to the country, however, his plan had developed a wrinkle. Or perhaps it’s truer to say he’d wrinkled it himself. Aware that the local firehouse was understaffed, he’d called to see if they could use any help from a volunteer with medical training. He imagined helping them update their medical equipment, maybe doing some on-site first aid.
The firehouse would be thrilled to have him, he was told. But there was one catch: Their insurance would only cover him if he took a training course and certified as a firefighter. My father, conscious of his age and bad back, hesitated a few weeks. Then he took the course and trained as a firefighter.
Aloud, I teased him that he was hooked on responsibility. Privately, I worried for him, and for my mother, that this commitment would circumscribe their new lives and make a fiction of his relaxing retirement. I’d never realized just how large the pager’s presence loomed until I had a chance to contemplate my father’s life without it. Having worried that too much freedom might leave him adrift, I now saw how badly I wanted his freedom.
I’m no longer worried.
For 34 years, I knew almost nothing about my father’s daily life. His work, which took up the lion’s share of his waking hours, was either off-limits for discussion due to patient confidentiality or inaccessible to me due to my lack of medical training. Now the same man who never told stories about his work has a tale to tell every week. For the longest time he operated in a sanitized environment; now he's wading into swamps with young firefighters to pull someone from a flipped car. He’s learning how to pump water from frozen ponds to douse burning barns. (His town has no pressurized fire hydrants.) In the stories he tells, he’s never the hero. He’s the new guy, ears open, laboring to learn from seasoned professionals half his age.
Once again my father wears a pager clipped to his belt. He orders medical equipment for the fire department, sifts inventory in the cavernous central firehouse. The emergency calls come, on average, once a week. When they do, he’s there for scene support—helping to pump water from the pond to fill the tanker trucks, helping manage the hoses, working on the ground to prepare tools and hoist them to the firefighters on the roof. And when there’s a medical issue, he works alongside the EMTs—the first physician on the scene.
It’s serious work. But that’s not the whole picture; the years of surgery, I now see, were my father’s hour’s work for an hour’s pay. This is recreational responsibility. And it’s woken something novel in him: a sense of almost boyish wonder. What adult doesn’t remember dropping everything as a child to watch the engines roar off to a fire? After all of my father’s years of labor, he’s earned a ticket to something entirely new.
This winter, on a visit to my parents’ house, my kids woke when my father’s pager went off in the middle of the night. They waited, rapt, to hear whether his firehouse would be called. They watched, quietly taking it all in, as he put on his turnout gear. And when he offered a tour of the firehouse, they jumped at the chance. He showed the kids the engines, the hovercraft used for ice rescues. He showed them around the hoses, explained how a Halligan tool is used to force entry to a building, talked about the weight of a full pumper and how careful one must be rounding a corner in a 43,000 pound truck.
I took a photo of my father and my kids that day, posing beside the cab of one of the engines. My five-year-old stands near the front wheel on tiptoe, stretching tall to make his head come even with the top of it. My seven-year-old, who usually appears in pictures with a great big gap-toothed grin, leans against her firefighter grandfather with a studiously casual expression that says, I’m with him. My father, standing against the engine with a protective arm over his grandchildren, wears a look of pure happiness.
Rachel Kadish is the author of the novels From a Sealed Room and Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story. She lives outside Boston with her family.